GGC softball team prepared for whatever gets thrown its way

Being in a county rich with softball tradition was a blessing and a curse for Kat Ihlenburg as she built the first team at Georgia Gwinnett College.

Yes, there's a deep pool of talent locally. But some players just don't want to be that close to home for college.

"The new program kind of sells itself," Ihlenburg said. "Sell is a funny word, but people get excited to see a brand-new program and be a part of something new. The challenge is keeping them so close to home. Everyone wants that, 'I went away to college' experience."

A few haven't felt that way, though. Ihlenburg has two freshmen coming out of Collins Hill, barely a 10-minute drive from GGC. One of them lives on campus and told Ihlenburg she only goes home about once a week for dinner with her family.

"The more I have those athletes as my example of success, the more we will grow," Ihlenburg said.

Both Collins Hill grads, Ashleigh Simmons and Danielle Koletsos, are well familiar with their home field. At least for the next month.

Construction of the Grizzlies' softball complex was delayed by a soggy winter and the team is playing its home games at Collins Hill until March. The season opener, a doubleheader against Faulkner, is there Saturday at 2 p.m.

"We have a good routine right now," Ihlenburg said. "We get out of class, come to the tennis center for weights, go right over to practice. It's a four-hour day, so it simulates a doubleheader, twice a week.

"Will it be nicer at our home field? Of course. But we're acclimated."

One of team's best attributes may be its ability to adapt.

"I think we're honestly going to be best at overcoming adversity," Ihlenburg said. "We have had to practice at so many different places and adjust on a daily basis, just to have time on the field or in cages together, that they pick up and follow me and say, 'OK, coach, we're going to get it done.'

"So wins and losses, bad road trips or adversity, I think they're really going to be good at counting on each other and overcoming those moments."

The team first got on a field together in September, beginning to build for the program's inaugural season.

"I'm very fortunate to have a good relationship with Coach (Paul) Pierce at Collins Hill," Ihlenburg said. "He shared some time with me at his field and we're there all this spring while (our field is) being built. He's been tremendous to work with.

"We did a lot of weights and conditioning (early on), those things that when you go through those hard moments, they kind of build camaraderie in funny way. They are definitely a very, very cohesive unit."

Obviously a new team doesn't have the established upperclassmen to lean on for leadership. But Ihlenburg was able to bring in several juniors who are excited about developing a new program. One of them, Heaven Hinton, helped start the East Georgia College softball team.

"She came in with the mentality of, 'I know how hard it can be and I'm going to be the best teammate to make us successful,'" Ihlenburg said. "She has stepped into a very positive role in leadership.

"We've also had a couple other junior college transfers, who, again, are good players that want to be out there and are committed to building a program."

The first player Ihlenburg brought in was Alycia Fields, a catcher from northern California.

"She came basically a week after I started a year ago," Ihlenburg said. "She was on campus, fell in love with it, trusted that I was going to build what I said and so far, so good."

Ihlenburg also was able to tap into Gwinnett's talent. Six players on the roster went to county high schools.

"Just the area in itself is so competitive, but Gwinnett County has so, so many good players," Ihlenburg said. "As we've grown and had people on campus, they're blown away. I've already got, hopefully, recruits from other local high schools."

As she put the team together, the most important thing to Ihlenburg was to find versatile players.

"I have zero players on my team that play one position," she said. "You may come in as a center fielder and end up playing third base. I really looked for athletes that knew the game and were passionate about the game and the opportunity -- which is a tremendous one."

Ihlenburg also wanted well-rounded student-athletes for the foundation of the program.

"I really hope that as people begin to look at our program, they can see growth," she said. "Growth in ways that translates on and off the field. That we're not one-dimentional softball players. That they're good students -- we had a great GPA in the fall -- and that they do community service.

"But really what it comes down to is that, on the field, they're the happiest. Hopefully that shines."